Do no harm

Allison Gruber
12 min readDec 19, 2020


Today was the last day of the semester.

Last days are, in a school, always buzzing with frenetic energy — eating and laughing and chatting and watching movies. I used to love stepping onto FALA campus in the morning on the last day before winter or summer break. You could positively feel the energy of children on the precipice of a holiday.

Last year, in one class, I remember a student sitting on my desk and we played Blackjack together. In another class, my friend and colleague Alana, and I played Trivial Pursuit on the floor in my classroom against a group of very sharp junior and senior girls.
I remember random gifts — coffee, handmade cards, chocolates — appearing on my desk when I stepped out to use the restroom or get coffee, kids too shy to deliver them in person, and then the kids who would stand and watch as you opened what they brought . . .

I told my students today that I was proud of them just for showing up.
Maybe I’ve been overly compassionate this year.
My intent was mainly to not be cruel.
The truth is some might look at what I did (or didn’t do) with my students this semester and scoff.
Academic rigor — whatever that means — did fall away.
A lot.
Did we read? Yes. Did we discuss what we read? Yes. Did we do some writing? Yep. Some talk of thesis statements and are-the-claims-supported-by-textual-evidence? Yeah. Did grading happen? It did.
But if I’m being perfectly honest,
what guided my grading decisions this semester was not mastery
but mercy.

Educators are currently mired in an identity crisis: is the role of the school to test and assess and test and assess along the same guidelines we’ve used for well over a century, or do we fundamentally shift what it means to “educate” and in doing so change what it looks like to be a “student”?
The outcome of this identity crisis will impact students (and therefore American society) for decades or more.
I don’t have an answer as to what education should be/look like going forward, I just hope it is equitable and made with the best interest of human beings in mind.
Like, I think educators should have to take a “do no harm” type oath, as doctors do . . . That’s how seriously we should take education. But that’s just me . . .

I have heard others (quite validly) argue that we should be teaching students how to be persistent in the face of adversity and part of that is holding them accountable: accountable for getting schoolwork done, in this case.

“Every generation has their struggle,” a friend reminded me recently.
“Every generation has learned how to cope and move forward.”
And I guess this is true, but what were the struggles of the last few generations? I mean as teenagers, what did each generation struggle with?Let’s look at a few:

Gen X? Economic insecurity. Gulf War. Both Bushes (war mongering dummies, but not total psychos).
Baby Boomers? Vietnam. Political unrest. Civil unrest.
The Greatest Generation? World War II. Uh . . . dust? TB? The Greatest Generation had it pretty fucking swell.
The Silent Generation? The Depression? Dust Bowl? WWI?

This generation? the Earth is literally dying and basically no one with the power to stop it is doing anything to stop it; we have a straight-up psycho man child as (outgoing, thank the gods) president; we have a pandemic raging out of control because man-child president has done absolutely nothing about it ON PURPOSE; everything is shut down, there is civil and political unrest and you also have to go to high school which maybe you hate and now you hate it even more and by-the-way-you-have-to-attend-on-Zoom-which-maybe-80%-of-your-teachers-really-know-how-to-use (AND P.S. your teachers are all fucked up, too, because just LIKE YOU they have had little-to-no real human interaction in almost a WHOLE FUCKING YEAR.)
(And PPS. Your teachers have also had no real training in online education.) (And PPPS. Online education will NEVER be as good as in-person education.)
(So you’re ostensibly getting an even shittier education now.)
(You’re welcome
— Love, Gen X, Boomers, & The Greatest Generation
— but mostly Boomers)
(There are many Boomers I love
— friends, family, and so forth, but sometimes you gotta generalize to make a point.)

I mean, even during The Great Depression you could hang out with your friends.

Like that was basically how people got through The Depression, wasn’t it? By drinking corn liquor with their friends out on the slanted porch and mumbling about how sad they were and playing songs on the banjo about how sad and shitty everything was?

So I would argue this generation’s struggle IS fundamentally different.

I mean, I’m an adult who has had some experience with adversity, and I’m not performing so well these days.

How are you doing, adult reader? Best ever? Feeling real good? Thriving? Flourishing? (If you said “yes” you’re either extremely young, really high on some hard shit that you should quit, or an emotional anomaly who should donate their brain to science.)

“They didn’t get a break” people say of previous generations who got handed their pile of shit. “They didn’t get a break.”

But maybe that’s the problem.
Maybe if the Silent Generation had been more tender
with The Greatest Generation who in turn were more tender
with The Boomers who in turn . . .

Maybe if the older generations were kinder to the younger,
if we stopped seeing “the youth” as adversaries and their ideas as adversarial just because we’re afraid of our own mortality, and instead remembered that they are younger humans and we, too, were once younger humans and what did we really want from the adults? What did we really need from the people in charge of our lives, our jobs, our classes? What would have motivated us? What would have made systems — like work and school — seem meaningful and decent and good and worthwhile? What would have made our lives happier and healthier?

And if we had been compassionate in schools, starting a long, long time ago, would we have had a Donald Trump for president? Would we have Americans who supported a man who bullied and mocked his perceived “enemies” and refused to denounce white supremacy?
Would we have ever tolerated this? If we weren’t conditioned
to be nervous robots, would we have stood for one second while that sloppy fascist mess of a “president” fucked shit up from coast to coast? Would we be sitting here right now, locked away in our homes for the holidays, on computer screens pretending digital and physical proximity are somehow alike?

I don’t think so.

Today, on Zoom classes, being that it was the last day, I tried to keep it particularly light and “festive.”
We played Kahoots of little-to-no educational merit and told stories and did show and tells (the littles and teens alike enjoyed this). We inexplicably ended up talking about Cheerios and I waxed poetic about my new favorite breakfast food (what’s up, Trader Joe’s “Overnight Oats”?), and one of my seniors
told us a story about randomly meeting Kanye (yeah, that Kanye) in Flagstaff
and showed us the photographic evidence and the story was so truly funny
that I was cry-laughing.
At the end of one Zoom, with seniors I’ve taught since they were in 7th grade, we signed off with air hugs and blown kisses, and heart emojis.
During yesterday’s last class with my middlers, a little boy typed in the chat,
“I wish I could give you a big hug.”
To which I replied, in chat, “I wish that, too.”
Hugs, in 2020, are wishes we share with one another.
Closeness, in 2020, is the memory of closeness that we share with one another.

The world is different.
We have to be different.

I don’t mean that we should throw academics out to make room
for all our big feelings; I just mean that maybe we can rethink academics in a way that makes the process more human.
We have a serious problem when kids who used to get A’s are suddenly, just this year, failing all their classes.
Oh, and they’re FEELING BAD about failing all their classes.
I don’t mean kids are just fucking off and not caring anymore.
They still care.
The adults still care, but the adults are failing to see the big picture.
The adults are forgetting that the young humans are, even if they’re eighteen, kids.

Maybe this year, the most important thing we teach our students is how to feel a little safe.
Or how to establish boundaries between work and personal life.
Or how to recognize when you need to pause and care for your mental health.
Maybe this is the year we teach kids about speaking truth to power.
Maybe this year, we teach kids that human fragility is real and that feeling sad or scared or tired or confused is not a sign of weakness,
that grades do not measure character . . .
you know, that stuff.
Maybe this year we tell high schoolers the truth.
If you’re an educator, when germane, tell them
YOUR truth (use common sense — like don’t tell your students about your failing marriage, or the details of your health problems, or about the substance abuse problem you developed in quarantine) — like, let them know you struggle with Zoom fatigue, too.
That sometimes you are tired, too.
That sometimes you procrastinate and forget things, too — maybe now more than ever.
Tell them you miss your friends, too, and that you miss your students (them)
something fierce because if that isn’t true I have no idea what you’re doing
in education.

I told a group of students I loved them today — I do.
So I told them.
So what?
Did any of my high school teachers ever tell us they “loved” us?
I do not believe so.
In fact, that would be a definite “no.”
I think it was, like, illegal in the 90s to tell
students you loved them thanks to Mary Kay Letourneau and
the Catholic priest scandals or some shit and
again, so what?
Just because my teachers never told my high school class they “loved us” (maybe they didn’t — and that’s okay) doesn’t mean I can’t (or shouldn’t)
tell my high school class I love them. I am so sick of my fellow adults
saying shit like “well I never got ____, so why should these kids get ____?”

And sometimes the old way is the best way
and sometimes the old way is the worst way.

Civilization must go on (some days I’m not 100% about this personal conviction, but that’s for another post), and so we must continue educating young people.

We still need language and art and math and science and logic and poetry and loud music and geometry. We just do.

We still need to raise up a society of people who can make medicine or perform surgeries or conduct orchestras or write poetry or care for others. I mean, I think
we can all agree that we need an educated populace. Right? (Maybe we’re so
ideologically fractured we can’t all agree on this.)

Maybe we all have different understandings or beliefs about
what ingredients go into a “good education,” but could one of the primary,
no substitute, ingredients be empathy?
I am talking about high school (my primary educational area of interest/understanding).
Maybe during tough times this means “no homework.”
Maybe this means we slow down. No more “cramming.”
Maybe this means “no grades.”
(I know some people’s heads are exploding: BUT WITHOUT GRADES HOW WILL MY CHILD KNOW THEY ARE BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE? They won’t. Because they aren’t.)
(Or worse, and I’ve heard this argument — though I am liberally paraphrasing here: BUT WITHOUT GRADES HOW WILL THIS CHILD KNOW WHAT A PIECE OF GARBAGE THEY ARE? They won’t. Because they aren’t.)

Do away with grades and you lessen the possibility that you have an entire swath of the American population who hated school so much, who saw so little value in their K-12 experience that they will vote, any chance they can, for candidates who wish to further destroy or undermine the value of public education. Do away with grades in K — 12 and you will have fewer members of the American citizenry who hold intelligent folks
in contempt — because I think this contempt starts in the K-12 classroom, when we are small and being emotionally tortured by adults who call themselves “teachers.”

Teenagers crying on Zoom during a pandemic because they’re suddenly failing in areas where they once excelled.
Is this what we want to produce? Stressed out, broken people?

As for me, I’ve learned a lot this semester. I have pages of notes about things I want to do better, differently, or do away with altogether in the coming semester.
I might get a little tougher on my seniors, depending on what the world looks like in January, but even when this all ends we’re still going to be traumatized. We’re still going to have to deal with the fact that one minute
we were leaving on spring break and the next
we were floating in space, away from each other.

Here’s what I know.
Lean in so cancer lady can give you a little perspective:
for a woman who is only forty-four and probably in her last chapter of life,
I can say with confidence that what I regret has nothing to do
with my high school GPA (which was abysmal) and frankly,
I don’t remember what grades I got in which class,
but I remember Mr. Lee fostered my writing and Doc (we called her that because she was the only teacher at our huge public h.s. to have a PhD)
taking us on field trips to help us better learn super complicated biological concepts and also bird calls.
I remember time with my friends — all the nonsense we got ourselves into,
the irresistible proximity to the city of Chicago . . . .
I also remember the times teachers made me feel small or stupid or bad about myself. (I remember this from my peers, but most acutely from my teachers because I feared them, and often I coveted their respect over the respect of my peers.)
Mrs. M (not her initial) might have known how to diagram a sentence, how to spot a comma splice with a sharp glance, but she was so cruel, so uninspiring, and punitive she almost turned me off of writing and literature forever.
Those who weren’t cruel were too dull to even remember (harsh but

There were only three teachers, in all four years at my enormous high school in the white, white, white suburbs of Chicago who were memorable to me: two for their goodness, for their inspired teaching, and one for her cruelty.

(All high school students will remember this year. They will remember teachers who were adept, inept, or somewhere in-between. They will remember if we cared about the subject matter or if we were faking it. They will remember whether or not we cared about them as individuals. When the pandemic was going on a year, when we were also suffering, did we become more mean or more kind? They’ll remember this, too.)

For now, I have a pile (electronic pile) of Google Docs to grade by Monday.
While we’ve lost so very much in 2020, at least the small, shittiest duties have remained: toilets must be cleaned, dishes done, papers graded . . .